Grammar Woes: Commas (Part 1)

Grammar. I know what some are thinking. I see it in threads on social media. I see people turning their noses at us grammar "snobs" and saying things such as "grammar is the editor's job." Sure, you'll have an editor, and you may chide me and say "grammar isn't everything" and be partially right, but if you're trying to get picked up by an agents or publishers, remember they get loads of amazing stories queried to them weekly. Put yourself in their shoes. You have two equally amazing manuscripts in your hands, but one needs a lot of work grammatically and the other simply needs a couple quick passes with an editor. Which client would you take on? The point is, no matter how great your story is, you want it to shine above others. It would be vain for us authors to think our work is so much better than others that we need not worry about grammar rules. I also know from teaching experience that people who have poor grammar often do not realize how hard it is to be understood by others. If agents cannot understand portions in the first few pages, they won't read on. They have piles of amazing books to sift through.

So if you're still with me after my professorial lecture, we'll overview commas today. But this is only a start. Oh yes, these puppies will take us several blogs to master.

Commas can be tricky. They are probably the most difficult grammar issue out there to master due to all the rules. I teach English at a university, including grammar, and I am a published writer, and I forget commas all the time. The trick is to stop worrying about them in the first draft. When you are at that stage where content and sentences are set, and you're basically copyediting, that is when you should worry about the dreaded comma (or other strictly grammar-related issues). Don't hinder your ideas by worrying about grammar in the beginning.


First the rules (US English). Here are the do and don't rules without all the nasty jargon most grammar sites rely on (this is not a complete list of every single comma rule, but the ones generally agreed upon and commonly found in writing)

DO use a comma...

1. To separate lists
2. For places and dates
3. To join two sentences (only if they are joined properly with FANBOYS)*
4. After an introductory phrase
5. To offset parenthetical "asides"
6. Between adjectives that don't relate before a noun
7. Before you shift into quoting

And the hardest rule of them all...

8. Whenever it's needed--shift in content, needed pause, or to offset interjections, contrasting elements, direct addresses to reader/person--yeah, lots of wiggle room with this one. In short, put it in if it cannot make sense without one.

DON'T use a comma
1. To create a parenthetical around essential phrases
2. Between your subject and verb
3. Between a compound subject or compound verb
4. Directly after other punctuation
5. To link 2 sentences together (without FANBOYS)*

*Note: ForAndNorButOrYetSo



No one expects anyone to be able to remember all the rules and get every comma right (unless you insist on editing your own book which is probably not a good idea). Editors will find comma problems, but knowing how to use most of these can increase your chances of getting published. Copying this list down and reviewing it when you edit could help dramatically. Eventually, they become an unconscious skill.

In the future, I'll dive into the more difficult of these rules in more detail. Stay tuned.


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